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Information Technology has been at the forefront of innovation and business efficiency in literally every industry on the planet since the advent of readily accessible computing in the 70’s.  Why then is IT not taking more of a leading role in the largest challenge facing our species at the moment, namely global warming and climate change?

If one examines the issue at a macro level, we really need a 3 pronged attack to survive as a species and IT needs to play a significant role in all of these:

1.  We need lots and lots of abundant clean energy, which is affordable.

There is no doubt that moving to clean energy, be it renewables or Nuclear (don’t discount this) is going to be more expensive than the cheap carbon we have today.  This however should not become a hindrance in pursuing this objective.  IT’s role in this paradigm shift, moving to a low carbon economy, will be paramount.  Smart green energy is the only way forward and technology will enable this.

2. We need to continue to pursue energy efficiency to ensure a sustainable future. 

If we assume that energy is going to get expensive, the only way to ensure sustained growth and get the majority of the world’s population out of energy poverty is to ensure that we become more efficient.  In simple terms, do more work with less energy that is more costly.  If we fail to achieve this, we will hinder economic growth and ensure that poverty persists.  The major consequence will be that poverty stricken communities that cannot afford ‘expensive clean energy’ may pursue dirty energy strategies.  So becoming more efficient is critical and in reality underpins what IT is all about.

The use of technology is almost always around becoming efficient.  The simple task of turning a bit on or off is actually about doing a piece of work more efficiently, be it a calculation, word processing or getting your companies books out earlier than ever before.  From a business perspective, IT is a large consumer of energy and making the service you deliver as a CIO in a more energy efficient way will become more and more important as the cost of energy continues to escalate.

3. We need to conserve our natural resources.

It is all well and good getting access to clean energy and becoming more efficient, however, if we don’t continue to manage, conserve and preserve our natural resources, the future of our species on the planet is questionable.  We have to continue to look after our water resources, our oceans and our natural wilderness.  These are critical to ensuring that our biome remains in balance and will ensure that water and food security do not become threats leading to conflict.  Again, the role of technology in monitoring the effects of climate change and managing these rapidly decreasing resources will become key.  Taking this further, moving to ‘birth to birth’ manufacturing processes which reutilise raw materials after usage will again be driven by advances in design driven by technology.

Business Apathy

Business remains largely apathetic to the issues around climate change and global warming.  The most common excuse is the responsibility to the shareholders to make a profit.  If we continue to hold that view, we are on a very slippery downhill slope into oblivion.  However, even if we do work within these confines, show me a single shareholder that would not agree with efficiencies that lower costs and improve the bottom line?  Show me a single shareholder that would fight against improved market perceptions of their business leading to financial growth?  Show me a shareholder that would prevent an organisation lowering their tax liability by lowering their carbon footprint, or improve their global market competitiveness by reducing the carbon intensity of their manufactured product. The triple bottom line of ‘people, profit and planet’ is paramount.

The steam train that is the ‘low carbon economy’  is actually nearing the station.  It may have already arrived!

The role for the CIO

If we accept that we are entering a paradigm shift, and that technology is going to be a key enabler moving forward, then the IT department and the role of the CIO is going to become increasingly important.  IT is going to be the change agent to drive efficiencies in organisations.  IT will enable companies to measure where they are and build plans to make improvements.  IT will be the means whereby companies will become ‘smart’.  ‘Smart’ in respect of all aspects of business, from logistics to facilities management, manufacturing processes to full de-materialisation of carbon intensive business processes.

The ‘smart’ CIO is the leader who is going to realize this sooner rather than later and start to lead these initiatives in the boardroom. Never has a more telling opportunity faced IT before than what the low carbon economy brings.  The opportunity for IT in many organisations is to move up the value chain and be at the forefront of business strategy and business leadership.  The change within the next 10 years is going to be enormous and companies that will win in this new economy will be the innovators, innovation led and driven through technology.

I don’t think anything sums up what faces us better than a quote by John Gardner, founder of Common Cause – ‘a series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems’.  The sooner we as CIO’s wake up to this opportunity, the better.

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